Every July various tributes to the first Moon landing and its astronauts appear in media. To contribute to that, my posting for this month is about theatrical cartoons that refer to the race between the United States and the Soviet Union to land on the Moon first. These cartoons contain illustrations of NASA astronauts, cosmonauts, Cape Canaveral, and Moon landings by representatives of nations. As such they differ from the cartoons that merely show individual characters exploring the galaxy and meeting creatures from outer space.
Early references to the space race consist of references to the Soviet satellite Sputnik, because the Soviet Union had just sparked the space race with its successful launch of the satellite in 1957. Warner Bros. Hare-Way to the Stars (1958) shows Sputnik striking Bugs Bunny during his rocket’s launch. Walter Lantz’s Woodpecker in the Moon caricatured the satellite even more severely in 1959. Woody flies in a rocket and encounters Sputnik, depicted with clothes hanging on a line tied between two antennae. As the United States entered the space race, animators moved on from poking fun at the satellite.
Instead, NASA’s facilities at Cape Canaveral, Florida became a target for light-hearted derision. In Paramount Cartoon Studio’s Cape Kidnaveral children build rocket ships. Woody Woodpecker goes to “Cape Carnival” in Lantz’s Rocket Racket.
These jokes disappeared in the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, when the federal government renamed the location Cape Kennedy for the first decade after his death.
Other cartoons of the early space race show the competitiveness between the two countries. Lantz’s Romp in a Swamp (1959) ends with an alligator flying through space. A Russian dog in a spacecraft eyes him and scowls, yelling in an accent, “Alligator, go home!” While trying to catch astronaut Jerry Mouse in space, Tom Cat accidentally opens the wrong space capsule and finds a Russian dog in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cartoon Mouse Into Space (1962). Similarly, in the 1965 Warner Brothers cartoon Tease for Two, an explosion sends Daffy Duck so far into space that he encounters a cosmonaut who curses at him from a Russian vessel. The duck, channeling comedian Bob Newhart, responds, “Same to you, fella!”
With successful launches of Gemini and Apollo vessels in the early and middle 1960s, space-race cartoons of the late 60s focus less on the Soviet Union and concentrate on US space efforts. MGM’s Puss In Boats (1966) opts for patriotism, in which Tom blasts into space via a fire hose and greets an American astronaut on a spacewalk. Two years later the Warner Brothers-Seven Arts cartoon Feud with a Dude shows Merlin the Magic Mouse and his assistant Second Banana boarding a rocket to escape two rural predators. Then the film cuts to live-action footage of an actual NASA rocket launch.
As the 60s closed, studios began to visualize how actual Moon landings would look. Paramount’s My Daddy the Astronaut (1967) accurately predicted not only the United States reaching the Moon first but also planting a flag on lunar soil. When the astronaut puts the Stars and Stripes into the ground, the narrator says, “This shows that we own the Moon!”
DePatie-Freleng’s Transylvania Mania (1968), on the other hand, provides a direct reference to the race itself but without mentioning either Americans or the Soviets. The Inspector sends a vampire and his Frankenstein monster to the Moon with a rocket. As the rocket lands the Inspector remarks, “Who would’ve thought Transylvania would be the first country to get to the Moon?”
Animated references to the space race petered out after July 1969, when the first lunar landing took place, and NASA completed its manned lunar missions in December 1972. By then the United States had planted several flags on the Moon, and people saw the Moon for what it actually was–an orbiting, gray form made of rock and craters. Thus, the last short of the space race–DePatie-Freleng’s Fowl Play (1973)–more realistically depicts the Moon and astronauts’ exploration of it than previous cartoons. In the film the snake Blue Racer lands on the Moon, and American astronauts pass by him in a lunar rover, driving on gray, craggy and holey soil. Of course, animation studios continued to set cartoons in space, but the lunar rocks and the confirmed absence of lunar beings made any post-exploration cartoons about Moon creatures the objects of sheer and counter-factual fantasy.